This column by Andrew Coyne is very good. You should read it.
Coyne’s thesis, I think, is this: Canadian conservatism is really a mixture of different groups, including libertarians, fiscal conservatives, and social conservatives. These groups don’t have a lot in common, but they can, under the right circumstances, put aside their differences to support a political party. Right now, that party is the Conservative Party of Canada. That party, however, isn’t giving the different groups in the coalition anything in exchange for their support. Eventually, this will destabilize the coalition of different groups that makes up the conservative movement. Or at least, it should.
Social conservatives aren’t getting any new restrictions on abortion.
Libertarians aren’t getting fewer regulations or a smaller government.
Fiscal conservatives aren’t getting a balanced budget.
In fact, if one had to pick the one salient idea still holding the different conservative groups together, it would be this: the alternatives — including the dreaded Coalition of Opposition Parties — would be worse.
There is that, and then there is Stephen Harper himself.
Because my guess is that many conservatives still believe that, deep down, Stephen Harper is still one of them. They believe that he believes in their ideas, and will implement them when the time is right.
When the time is right. When he can. When the Conservative majority is big enough. When the opposition is even more divided than it is now.
Then, and only then — the budget will be balanced, economic regulations will be eased, and abortion will be restricted. Maybe we’ll even get some privatization in health care!
I think I know why social conservatives persist in trusting Stephen Harper, while forgiving his mistakes. All social conservatives believe two things about morality: that it is objective, and that it is difficult. The world makes it hard to do the right thing. Because of this, hypocrisy is easier to forgive and more challenging to identify. What looks like hypocrisy on the surface may just be weakness of will, a failing we all experience at one time or another. And it can be overcome, especially with the support of one’s community.
Thus, the Prime Minister, or any politician, should receive the benefit of the doubt. He will get it right eventually. When the time is right.
What I do not understand is why mature libertarians would grant the Conservatives this kind of leeway.
Let me describe the mature libertarian. The mature libertarian does not think of his government as one big, unitary thing that can easily be opposed. He does see a difference between the government of a liberal democracy and, say, the Nazis. If he were going to pick a label for his government, the first word on his lips would be “incompetent” and not “evil.”
He recognizes that the government is made up of different kinds of individuals, just like any other organization. Some of them are crusaders, trying to “make the world a better place,” according to their own ideologies. Some are schemers looking to line their own pockets. Some are addicted to the status boost that comes from being a politician. Some have been in politics so long they wouldn’t be good at anything else.
Some are just morons.
What the mature libertarian also knows is that this diversity doesn’t really matter. Not in a liberal democracy.
It doesn’t matter because any politician — crusader, schemer, status-seeker, seat-filler, or moron — has to play by the same set of rules in order to be politically successful. And the rules aren’t that complicated. Even a moron can realize that he’ll have to buy off certain interest groups to gain their support. Even a crusader must eventually recognize that compromising with the enemy is an essential political skill. A seat-filler from a rural riding won’t be filling his seat for long if he doesn’t invite the dairy farmers to join him at the table.
Politicians understand this. They may even understand it better than libertarians.
Stephen Harper grasps it better than almost anyone. I don’t know if he’s a crusader, bent on turning Canada into a libertarian paradise (or, as the left seems to believe, the Republic of Gilead) or a status seeker who loves the prestige of his position. But I don’t need to know. Because whatever his other motivations, what he really wants is to win the next election.
In this sense, mature libertarians and social conservatives should agree on the inevitability of political hypocrisy. It will happen. Only the left seems to believe otherwise.
But unlike social conservatives, I do not believe libertarians have any room to forgive politicians for their sins. So-cons have the hope that, one day, Stephen Harper will be able to rise above his circumstances and bring about the policies they desire. They believe this because, while they believe in weakness of will, they also believe that weakness can be overcome. Forgiveness is motivation to try again, to be better, to finally do what is right.
For libertarians, political hypocrisy is not just inevitable, but insurmountable. We are, or should be, like atheists who have finally come to grips with the fact that evil will often triumph and never be punished. There is no possibility of grace in our view, no divine intervention that can prod the conscience of a politician until he does what is right, instead of what is merely expedient. There is nothing outside the system to do any prodding.
Only the voters. And if enough of them were libertarian, we wouldn’t need to hope for libertarian politicians. If people were libertarian, libertarian politicians would not be necessary; because they are not, no libertarian politician is possible.
Thus, forgiveness and continued community support is pointless, because it will not produce the change we seek. The hypocritical politician is simply an excellent example of his kind, in the way that ebola is an excellent example of a deadly disease.
What, then, can we say about Stephen Harper? He is very good at failing to live up to the standards he at one time avowed. He is an excellent politician. And for precisely that reason, he cannot be forgiven.
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen to-morrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.
“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.
– Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Here is a list of beliefs I think most orthodox libertarians hold:
- White business owners should be permitted to refuse service to black customers. Even if the result is that black people are unable to obtain groceries or other necessities, or even hotel rooms while traveling.
- White employers should be allowed to hang a “Help Wanted — whites only” signs on their doors. Even if the result is that black people are unable to find employment.
- Property owners should be permitted to refuse to rent to gay people. Even if the result is that gay people end up homeless.
- Neo-Nazis should be permitted to publish whatever they want. Even if the result is that Jews and other minorities are attacked in the streets.
- People should be permitted to sell and consume marijuana. Even if the result is that more people smoke pot.
- People should be allowed to purchase and inject heroin in the privacy of their homes. Even if the result is a greater number of fatal overdoses per year.
- Wealthy people should not be taxed to provide food for the poor or anyone else. Even if the result is that a certain number of children starve each year.
- All laws restricting immigration ought to be abolished. Even if the result is higher unemployment.
- Public education should be abolished. Even if the result is that many of the children of poor people will be illiterate.
- People should be allowed to own any kind of firearm, including machine guns currently restricted under U.S. law. Even if the result is more school shootings.
I could go on. But let us be clear about what I am doing. Each belief has two parts: first, a policy prescription (X should be permitted, or X should not be done.) The second part is a logically possible consequence of enacting that prescription.
Libertarians have many ingenious and empirically supported arguments for why the consequence for each policy is unlikely to arise. I can even see an orthodox reading my list rolling his eyes: “Any business owner stupid enough not to hire qualified black people would quickly be out of business.”
Okay. But most people, I would argue, do not adopt a position because of the consequences that are likely to result but also because of the consequences that could result. They should not necessarily be criticized for doing so.
Most every road-to-serfdom argument I’ve heard from libertarians and conservatives has a similar form: if we let the state do X, which looks mostly harmless, then that may lead to it doing Y, which is not harmless at all. Few see a need to ask for the data showing how likely it is that X will lead to Y. Oftentimes, we’re just asked to believe that higher taxes will lead to concentration camps, which is why I am waiting for Denmark to open its version of Guantanamo Bay.
The point, however, is that we all agree that the negative consequences that could flow from some policy are, for most people, a reason against that policy. This is not to say that everyone is a consequentialist; it is just to say that consequences matter.
All I have done is connect a smattering of libertarian beliefs to some of their worst possible consequences. Indeed, these consequences are more than possible. In a few cases, history and a rudimentary understanding of human nature suggest they are almost plausible (which is why I don’t want to hear about potential alien invasions in anyone’s rebuttal; alien invasions are possible, but before we had civil rights laws, ‘whites only’ signs actually happened. It is not crazy to think they might happen again if those laws were abolished.)
We should do this/not do this — even if –. That is the formula. And it is the “even if” part that is an obstacle, I think, to selling libertarianism to a wider audience. Many will nod along to the policy prescriptions — more freedom! less government! — and then shrink back in horror when they hear the “… even if” part, or figure it out for themselves.
What do we do then?
First, we don’t talk about the “even if.” One might even say that the first rule of the libertarian club is that you don’t ever mention the “even if.” We don’t mention that we want freedom even if the result is “whites only” signs and starving, illiterate children. Because if we said that, no one would listen to us. If pressed, present the empirical case. Argue that the negative consequence is unlikely to occur. But for God’s sake, don’t say that we would support the policy even if the facts were otherwise. Just be glad they’re not.
Second, we prioritize. Marijuana decriminalization has a great deal of public support. The people who oppose it tend to be unlikable fascists. Of all the items in my list, its “even if” is the least objectionable. We push that issue and talk about the others only among ourselves. We don’t mention that marijuana is only one drug among many, and that we want all of them legal.
We don’t say, “Anti-discrimination law is bullocks. Racists shouldn’t have to hire blacks and forcing them to do so is more objectionable than racism is!”
And make sure never to admit to the belief that it would be entirely wrong for the state to take a penny from Bill Gates to prevent children from starving. Never say that if a law did exist, requiring billionaires to contribute a small amount of money to keep orphans alive, that we — libertarians — would be the first to argue for its abolition. Even if.
Well, some of us will say these things. So I am not saying all libertarians are wimps.
What I am saying is that there is a wimpish tendency in libertarianism. A tendency to eschew certain issues and prioritize others, in a way that the position itself doesn’t require (or even necessarily support.) Libertarianism, as far as I can tell, does not require soft-peddling the consequences. It does not mandate emphasizing the popular over unpopular. Only politics, or maybe rhetoric, requires these things. But these are the wrong kinds of reasons.
First, they are the wrong kinds of reasons because they are not even politically astute. People are not so stupid that they are completely unable to understand the relationship between cause and effect. If they don’t immediately realize that illiterate, starving children are a possible consequence of your policies, they will figure it out eventually. And they will turn from you. They may even feel betrayed that you were too cowardly to point out the consequences from the beginning.
Second, setting priorities based purely on political considerations is grossly hypocritical. The worst infractions of liberty may not map perfectly onto the ones that can be sold most easily to the public. Injustice should not be allowed to slide just because it is politically expedient. Nor should it be allowed to slide because correcting it might result in starving children. If you’re an orthodox libertarian, you want public education gone, and if you are a thoughtful orthodox libertarian, you should have already considered the possibility that it might lead to a generation of illiterates.
Hiding the real reason you support some policy and allowing others to believe you support it for some other reasons is so close to hypocrisy as to be indistinguishable.
To let politics drive your priorities is to necessarily become more like a politician. And it is exceedingly difficult to object to politicians who do what is popular over what is right when you are, in your own way, doing the same thing. If you are an orthodox libertarian who wants to abolish all anti-discrimination law — even if the result will be a proliferation of “whites only” signs and a culture awash in hate literature – then you should say so.
Yes, it’s an unpopular position. Yes, the people on the other side who support anti-discrimination law are more likable than the fascists who tend to support U.S. drug policy. But you are just as much against them as you are against the would-be Javerts who work for the Drug Enforcement Agency.
With regard to today’s Supreme Court decision upholding Taylor and Canada’s anti-hate speech laws:
Obviously, libertarians will hate the decision, but hopefully they weren’t disappointed. Did anyone really think the Court would strike down the censorship provisions in every human rights act across Canada?
But I see a puzzle. To quote the decision,
the term “hatred” contained in a legislative hate speech prohibition should be applied objectively to determine whether a reasonable person, aware of the context and circumstances, would view the expression as likely to expose a person or persons to detestation and vilification on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination.
The Court’s opinion repeatedly emphasizes the objective elements of hate speech. It is reasonable to prohibit such speech because of its objective effects on targeted groups. This is why the Court rejects considerations of speaker’s intent; if an utterance is harmful, the intent of the speaker does not mitigate that harm. Similarly, the truth of an utterance is also irrelevant to its effects. As the Court argues,
Truthful statements can be presented in a manner that would meet the definition of hate speech, and not all truthful statements must be free from restriction. Allowing the dissemination of hate speech to be excused by a sincerely held belief would provide an absolute defence and would gut the prohibition of effectiveness.
This actually sounds correct, as far as it goes. If what you’re worried about is limiting the effects of speech, then truth and speaker’s intent are both irrelevant. What matters is how the speech will affect other people. With regard to hate speech, those effects can be broken into two categories:
- The effect of the utterance on its target (e.g. gays, the Roma, etc.)
- The effect of the utterance on its audience (e.g. Christians, neo-Nazis, etc.)
The total impact of a hateful utterance will be a combination of these two effects. If Bill Whatcott’s anti-gay flyers lead more people to hate gays, then they are effective in sense (2). If they lead gays to feel badly about themselves, then they are effective in sense (1). Perhaps they did both.
While I haven’t had time to dig into today’s decision, it appears that the Court found hate speech laws a reasonable infringement on freedom of expression because of effects of type (1). That is, the audience’s reaction matters (here I use audience in a broad way, to refer to anyone who hears the hateful utterance. An anti-gay utterance could have a negative effect on gays without any gay person ever hearing it, if the people who do hear respond in the wrong way.)
One of the puzzles this sort of reasoning raises in my view is this. In its decision, the Court made sure to reiterate that hate speech laws do not extend to private speech acts. If Whatcott had invited a person to his house and shown that person his flyer, that would not have been prohibited (and if it had been prohibited, the relevant law would then have been in constitutional peril for being overbroad.)
The question, however, is why not? Why not prohibit any expression of hatred, whether private or not? The fact that a hateful utterance is made privately has, as far as I can tell, little to do with its effects, and any connection between the effects of an utterance and whether it is made in (say) a church or my house would be tentative and contingent.
Clearly, private speech can have the kind of effects that worry the Court. For example, suppose Bill Whatcott were much more intelligent, but just as hateful. Being much more intelligent, suppose he came up with the one true argument proving that gays are terrible people who should be mistreated. I do not believe there is such an argument, but that’s not the point. The point, let us suppose, is that he has such an argument at his disposal — an argument that is sound, and convincing to any reasonable person.
Rather than printing the argument on flyers, he simply invites one person to his house at a time and presents the argument to them. Each person is convinced, and goes on to present the argument to two other people.
If a restriction on speech can be justified purely on the effects of that speech, then Whatcott must be prevented from presenting his argument. This is so even if he is careful to only raise the argument with one person at a time, within the privacy of his home. This is so even if the argument really is sound. I will also add that none of the premises in the argument amount to hate speech themselves; it is only in the aggregate, when the premises are combined, that they have their effect.
(My example requires us to reject Professor Richard Moon’s claim, that hate speech is necessarilyfalse. If Moon is correct, then my scenario cannot arise, because a sound argument cannot be hate speech.)
Thus, the same reasoning the Court used to uphold existing hate speech laws could be used to uphold laws restricting the private presentation of a sound argument. If audience effect is sufficient to restrict speech, then an audience of one person should also be sufficient to trigger a restriction. But that means any speech act can be restricted.
A further puzzle. Consider alternative universe version of Bill Whatcott, who presents an equally sound argument proving that gays should not be harmed, and, indeed, that they should always be treated with respect. However, Whatcott lives in a perverse community, full of unreasonable people, and rather than changing the views of his audience, alternative Whatcott inadvertently inspires them to acts of violence against gays.
Since effect is what matters, and any reasonable person would have foreseen that the people in Whatcott’s community would react the way they did to his argument, his pro-gay argument could also be restricted.
Thus, finally, what I really find puzzling is this. By the Court’s reasoning, two different, equally sound arguments with opposing conclusions, could both be restricted, and could both be restricted simultaneously. I find this very odd. It also makes it difficult for a person who makes arguments for a living to know just what kinds of arguments he can make, and when he can make them.
I’m posting this strictly for the lulz. Eric Dondero, a self-described libertarian Republican who once worked for Ron Paul, is spitting mad about President Obama’s victory.
And when I say spitting mad, I mean that literally.
If I meet a Democrat in my life from here on out, I will shun them immediately. I will spit on the ground in front of them, being careful not to spit in their general direction so that they can’t charge me with some stupid little nuisance law. Then I’ll tell them in no un-certain terms: “I do not associate with Democrats. You all are communist pigs, and I have nothing but utter disgust for you. Sir/Madam, you are scum of the earth.” Then I’ll turn and walk the other way.
This is even funnier if you imagine Daffy Duck saying it. Which you probably are, now that I’ve mentioned it.
Daffy Dondero’s “personal boycott” gets even funnier (and pettier, if you can believe it.)
Have a neighbor who votes for Obama? You could take a crap on their lawn. Then again, probably not a good idea since it would be technically illegal to do this. But you could have your dog take care of business. Not your fault if he just happens to choose that particular spot.
Yes, well. I believe some jurisdictions may also frown on pet owners letting their dogs shit on other people’s lawns. Then there’s that whole respect-for-private-property thing.
When not befouling his neighbor’s yard, Dondero is doing his part to dismantle the “libertarians are all assholes” stereotype.
When I’m at the Wal-mart or grocery story I typically pay with my debit card. On the pad it comes up, “EBT, Debit, Credit, Cash.” I make it a point to say loudly to the check-out clerk, “EBT, what is that for?” She inevitably says, “it’s government assistance.” I respond, “Oh, you mean welfare? Great. I work for a living. I’m paying for my food with my own hard-earned dollars. And other people get their food for free.” And I look around with disgust, making sure others in line have heard me.
Keep in mind: this isn’t something he’s planning on doing; it’s something he’s already doing. Imagine how many converts he’s made.
No, not to libertarianism. To the libertarians-are-all-assholes point of view. Well done, sir! Well done!
If all libertarians were like Dondero, Gary Johnson would have received at least five percent of the popular vote. You know it’s true.
Dig into the comments for even more fun.
Hint: when Dondero’s not glowering in disgust at people in the line at Walmart, he’s predicting “Nazi-style concentration camps” in two or three years. What a guy! We need more like him!
UPDATED, see below for Rush Limbaugh’s post-election reaction.
Exclusive to The Volunteer, Dissociated Press provided the following roundup of reactions to the reelection of President Barack Obama.
What is left to hope for? That the American people will soon regret their choice? That another four years of economic stagnation and escalating debt will cure them of their insane appetite for charismatic liberals? If four years of endless failure have not rid them of this madness, the disease may well be terminal. Perhaps others will still see some cause for hope, and in another few weeks my friends may persuade me to see it, too. But today I will hear no such talk, and I doubt I’ll be in a better mood tomorrow. At the moment, I am convinced America is doomed beyond all hope of redemption, and any talk of the future fills me with dread and horror.
– Robert Stacy McCain, American Spectator. Reportedly said while he was drying his eyes in a Confederate flag, earlier soiled when he vomited into it after seeing a black man kissing a white woman.
The white establishment is now the minority…And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things? … The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore.
– Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, shortly before he was fired for being Irish.
It’s true, it’s true we were beaten, yes, but by what? By money and ethnic votes, essentially.
– Former Quebec premier Jacques Parizeau, lamenting Romney’s loss from a hidden fortress in Quebec City. To be fair, he may have been talking about some other beating he’d received.
Why, putting it coarsely, doesn’t the Republican Party get credit for Condoleeza Rice? Why doesn’t the Republican Party get credit for Marco Rubio? Why doesn’t the Republican Party get credit for Suzanne Martinez…
Are we going to get the votes Obama got last night. We’re not? Really, we’re not?
We won’t. But we’re not getting the votes that Obama got last night because we have Condoleeza Rice – and she is a pinnacle of achievement, and intelligent, and well-spoken . . . You can’t find a more accomplished person. Marco Rubio. And really, speaking in street lingo, we’re not getting credit for it.
And the white Republican establishment is putting these people out front, but they really don’t believe that Marco Rubio is that good of a deal. Window dressing! If that’s the perception of Obama voters, than how do we change that?
– Rush Limbaugh, shortly before the pharmacy refused his attempt to trade a black person in for some Oxycontin.